The Penalty Heard Round The World
AUGUSTA, Ga. – Guan Tianlang didn’t need the school books he brought to America to learn two important life lessons in the Masters.
Don’t ask your caddie too many questions. And never trust foolish men in green jackets to do what is right.
Put a 14-year-old whose first language isn’t English in the heat of golf’s most prestigious championship? Sure, might be a good way to sell millions more in television rights and make a Masters hat a hot item in China.
Allow him to act like an indecisive kid when facing the most monumental moment of his young life? About as much chance of that as having Jim Nantz call Masters fans something other than patrons.
What could have been an international incident Friday was avoided – barely – when the boy wonder of Chinese golf slipped inside the cut line at Augusta National. The youngest player ever in the Masters escaped to play the weekend along with Tiger Woods and the other elder statesmen of golf.
It didn’t happen until Jason Day missed a birdie putt on the 18th green after almost most everyone else had gone home. Had it gone in, Guan would have gone home, too, ruining what just could be the best story of this Masters.
That it even came down to that should be an embarrassment to the stuffed shirts who run golf’s most hallowed grounds. They’re in charge of everything from the way sandwiches are wrapped at the food stands to making sure the azaleas bloom at just the right time.
And they’re the ones who allowed a rules official to penalize Guan for slow play, something that as far as anyone can tell had never happened before in a Masters.
Not in 76 previous Masters. Not ever.
Guan couldn’t figure out how to speed things up, even after he was warned. He kept asking his caddie questions and, as any parent of a teenager knows, decisions at that age sometimes don’t come easily.
Still, he toed the party line after more than an hour in the clubhouse being briefed on who knows what.
“I respect the decision they make,” said Guan, who has answered questions since he arrived in English, which he studies daily in the eighth grade.
Guan was an easy target, even though he and playing partners Ben Crenshaw and Matteo Manassero never held up the group behind them. He was slow, and even playing in the Masters at his tender age isn’t an excuse for dawdling over shots.
But every threesome that teed off was taking five and a half hours to play a tremendously demanding course in swirling winds. Some of them included notoriously slow players, who understand what Guan didn’t – how to game the system so they won’t get penalized.
They picked on a 14-year-old because they could. He had no agents to protest, no minders to stare down the green jackets. Just his mom and dad, an interpreter, and a few family friends.
Think they would have done this to Tiger Woods? Not a chance, even though his group took the better part of six hours to get around 18 holes Friday.
“I’m sick for him,” Crenshaw said. “He’s 14 years old. We’re playing when you get the wind blowing out here. Believe me, you’re going to change your mind a lot. I’m sorry, I’m a player. But it is not easy to get around this golf course the way it’s set up for two days.”
This was supposed to be a feel good story, and for the better part of two days it was. The Chinese flag joined those from other countries flapping in the wind over the large Masters scoreboard just off the first fairway, and there was excited talk about what the youngster with the brilliant touch around the greens could do for the game of golf in his home country.
That all changed, though, thanks to a rule so convoluted that none of the math or history school books Guan brought with him could come close to explaining it. If you’re terribly interested, it’s Rule 6-7 plus some Masters guidelines, which say, among other things, that shots should take no longer than 40 seconds each and threesomes should complete play in 4 hours and 39 minutes.
European Tour rules official John Paramor, on loan to Augusta National for the tournament, said he had no choice but to enforce the penalty even if it had never been enforced before and the alleged offender was so young.
“It’s the Masters,” he said. “It’s the Masters competition.”
Forgive Paramor for probably hanging around the officious green jackets too much this week and feeling a bit self-important himself. On second thought, don’t forgive him at all.
“He’s a youngster just learning the game and it’s his first professional tournament. It seems a little bit harsh to me,” Lee Westwood said. “He probably learned to play slowly after watching us professional golfers on TV, so why should we be surprised?”
Also not surprising was the way the green jackets dealt with it all. They scurried in and out of the clubhouse for the better part of 90 minutes, trying to figure out what to do with the burgeoning crisis before sending Guan out to meet the media.
Give the kid credit for acting beyond his years. He may have been reciting the party line fed to him by Masters officials, but he managed to do it in his second language and he stuck to the script.
“They should do it,” he said, “because it’s fair to everybody.”
It wasn’t that, of course. Not even close.
But that’s a lesson to be learned another time.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org or twitter.com/timdahlberg